A respite from respite films (coughHowToStealAMillion) brings one back to less confection-y, more complexity-works such as the archetypal “art film” by Francis Ford Coppola, The Conversation. Considered a masterwork of understatement, it is only so when put next to anything else Coppola has ever done. This should not be misunderstood to mean that Coppola has no gift for subtlety, or that subtlety is necessary for masterworks. Coppola likes making epics, and this film is simply not an epic. Its content, however, is huge, but Coppola keeps it reigned in like Siegfried & Roy reign in wild cats. And just like the tiger trainers, it would only be a matter of time before Coppola got eaten by one of his projects.
As discussed recently in Kieslowski’s Decalogue VI, the theme of voyeurism, the gaze, the spectacle is arguably the one most integral to cinema, since it deals with the very nature of cinema and the act of watching. This makes “small” films concerned with this theme, like Decalogue VI and The Conversation all the more delicate, since they can easily treat their subject matter naively. The Conversation could be seen as groundbreaking, in some sense, since it takes the visual theme of voyeurism and translates it to the aural: surveillance. Articles and essays on the film observe that historically, The Conversation is situated in close proximity to important cultural and political events that heightened national paranoia over surveillance. The Watergate scandal alone illustrated the impact that audio tapes could have on the highest office in the land, dwarfing Nixon to the status of a crooked, foul-mouthed liar with the push of a “play” button. Coppola takes advantage of this growing paranoia among his spectators and puts on display the cutting-edge technology that allows such surveillance and makes nearly impossible any attempt to discern it while it’s happening. Nowadays, however, the image of a wiretappers’ convention is almost comical, going as it does against the grain of the very notion of secret surveillance.
The film begins with a long take from the top of Union Square in San Francisco, which draws comparisons to scenes from The Third Man, Touch of Evil, Psycho and even Children of Men. Something about the notion of being watched demands the long take, the bird’s-eye view that slowly closes in on human ants and renders them unknowing persons. The camera eventually zooms in on Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), briefly deceiving the audience into thinking that he is the watched, when it turns out he is the watcher. Of course, this deception is itself an ironic deception, as the narrative will show. Shots in the film begin long and gradually shorten, until an effect of stifling interiority is achieved. Caul is the object of cinematic surveillance/voyeurism, a fact that becomes diegetically true, as well. Caul’s worst nightmare is that anyone know anything about him; he is consumed with such paranoia that he insists that he has no personal possessions of his own. His lack of subjective identity (restricted only to playing the saxophone and a brief fling with a woman) is transferred to his professed lack of subjective concern over his surveilled victims. He states that he cares not about those he is assigned to surveill, only that he gets a “nice fat recording.”
The Conversation reveals an ironic phenomenon within the act of watching or listening-in: that which would seem to be centripetal is in fact centrifugal. In surveillance, an image or frame would seem to capture that which is being sought or viewed. Attention would, presumably, be focused toward the center of the frame. In the same way, the cinematic image, it would seem, is no different than a painting. Painted art is known for its centripetality, drawing the eye of the viewer toward the center and often being constructed in such a way as to balance the various elements within the frame. In reality, however, and thanks to the observations of Andre Bazin and others, the cinematic image is centrifugal, always most interesting for what it does not show, always drawing attention past its own borders. These borders, classically, are blackness. The darkness of the cinema theater (or even the home theater!) gives a distinct border to the film frame, surrounding it with a nothingness, an abyss of aether that suggests literally infinite possibilities. This reality is, of course, what allows particularly for such genres as suspense, thriller, and horror. Anyone who has been frightened by a horror film knows that true terror occurs not at what is shown but at what might be shown. Hence why cheesey horror films are so bad: they put the horror image right out there, instantly disarming the spectacle of its ability to terrify.
As this is all true of the cinematic imaged, so it is with the surveilled image. The Hitchcockian suspense created by the recordings to which Caul listens lies not in what is said but rather in what what-is-said might mean or allude to; that which is beyond the aural scope or the visual frame. As words and images are signifiers, the signified is elsewhere, allusive, at some level even impossible. Caul’s disdain for the signified is both lazy and dishonest; lazy for his attempt to evade ethical concerns and dishonest because the human mind, like it or not, seems to strive after structure, order, rationality, meaning. Signifiers alone are naked, incomplete, even abject. They are the facade of a neither-nor, disturbing for what they may mean and for pretending to mean nothing. Caul would have them mean nothing or not worry over what they may signify. He is, however, as enslaved to the inevitability of the signified as anyone. This reality is evident in the technique of surveillance: stationary or swiveling cameras, automated, mindless and without prejudice for whoever or whatever might wander into their range. Haneke’s Caché brought this fact to new and more criminal levels.
The final shot of The Conversation features an optical change from the rest of the film. Heretofore, most shots within Caul’s apartment have been stationary, not unlike a hidden camera. Caul blends in perfectly with his domestic surroundings, moving through the spaces of his apartment in a chameleon-like manner. The camera cuts to different rooms like a closed-circuit television. An irony here is that what appears to be objective surveillance is in fact Caul’s own paranoia. He imagines himself always being watched, even with his apartment’s multi-deadbolts. So, throughout the film we see Caul through a series of calm, unmoving camera shots. As Caul descends into complete myopic paranoia, so nearsighted that even amateur cinematic spectators want to talk some sense to him, he tears his apartment apart. He externalized his interior state and, as others have noted, reverts to a primal state. This was already hinted at in the hotel bathroom when Caul’s toilet flushing led to a regurgitation, an abject vomiting of blood in reverse-Psycho manner. Instead of the primal subsiding as the blood goes down the drain for Norman Bates, Harry Caul’s primal state returns and is visualized by that none-more-primal appliance: the toilet. Finally, back in his apartment, Caul returns to his saxophone (a nursing baby?), and now the camera moves – slowly swiveling, automated, unbiased – but more active, more concerned than it has been throughout the film, consistent with Caul’s state of mind.
The result is an effect that has already made numerous appearances in the film: visual and aural abstraction. Earlier, Caul’s primal descent included waking up in the hotel room after an attack to an extreme closeup of a distorted television image. What appears at first to be inspiration for later Kieslowski films turns out to be an episode of The Flintstones, a primal image if there ever was one. The image begins at the level of abstraction, effectively correlating the cinematic image with Caul’s own half-conscious subjectivity. Aurally, a piano forte soundtrack throughout the film has hinted at a state of simplicity, perhaps deceptively so, since the narrative itself is headed into a most foggy direction. Between and within these piano pieces, Caul’s audio surveillance provides the soudtrack with sounds qualitatively equal to the extreme closeup of the distorted television screen. They are incomprehensible, alien to the senses, and noetically vacuous. The act of surveillance is first of all passive; information only becomes knowledge at the stage of activity. Until facts become truth, until phenomenology becomes epistemology, sensual data is an abstraction. Coppola dwells on these visual and aural images much in the same way that Kieslowski later will, perhaps especially in another film about surveillance, Red. That The Conversation finishes on a visual note of abstraction reflects Caul’s primal subjectivity, his inability to translate date into knowledge, to render a signified out of the innumerable signifiers that now surround him.